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A Stand-Up Guy

Arlen Specter was a party-switcher and political opportunist like no one in living memory.

By From the March 2012 issue

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Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, A Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It
By Arlen Specter with Charles Robbins
(Thomas Dunne Books, 368 pages, $26.99)

It's a common problem in today's economy. Older workers are laid off from their longtime jobs at an age where it is hard to obtain comparable employment but they are still too mentally active to shuffle off to Florida and take in the early bird specials. What to do for a retirement gig?

Arlen Specter found himself in this dilemma when he was bounced from the Senate after five terms. The Russell, Kansas boy turned Pennsylvanian is not friendly enough to be a Walmart greeter, so he found other options. Specter will teach a college course this fall. And he has become a stand-up comedian.

You read that right. The man who invoked Scottish law at the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and voted "not proven" has tried his hand at open mic night. Clinton is a staple of his comedic material. "I called Clinton up on his 65th birthday and I said, 'Bill, congratulations on being 65. How do you feel?'??" Specter deadpanned. "He said, 'Arlen, I feel like a teenager. The problem is I can't find one.'??"

Bada-bing. The Clinton impeachment saga also makes it into Specter's routine. "Bill Clinton is a friend of mine because I was a friend of his," Specter cracked. "I voted not to impeach him. That's a hell of a thing to do considering the evidence."

Please remember to tip your waiters and waitresses, ladies and gentlemen. Specter isn't limited to teaching and comedy. He is also the author of a new book Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, A Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It. The title and the subtitle capture the essence well. Specter has plenty of scores to settle with the Republicans and Democrats who ended his Senate sinecure, and settle them he does. He feels wronged by his primary loss and subsequent departure from Congress, and thinks the American people should feel wronged too.

Yet Specter is an astute man. Realizing that he has just been rejected by the electorates of both major parties, he understands that the market of people who are sorry to be deprived of Specter's legislative services might not be that big. So he also offers a history lesson, chronicling the Tea Party movement that was his partial undoing and the problems moderates face in both parties. At times, Specter is even able to do this somewhat dispassionately, a genuine accomplishment considering the bruised feelings that clearly remain.

SPECTER WAS A PARTY-SWITCHER and political opportunist long before 2010. In 1965, the man behind the "magic bullet theory" decided to run for district attorney. Specter was then a Democrat, so he paid a visit to the party bosses in Philadelphia. "We don't need another Tom Dewey," the Democratic chairman told Specter. They wanted the next district attorney to be someone from the party machine.

Desperate for a candidate, Philadelphia Republicans then approached Specter about running on the GOP line. Local Republican leader Billy Meehan promised Specter he would have the party's backing. "They didn't do me any favors in offering me the nomination, because it wasn't worth much," Specter writes. "I wouldn't claim to have done them any favor in being their candidate." Specter nevertheless took Meehan up on his offer and became the Republican nominee for district attorney—even though he remained a registered Democrat.

Quintessential Arlen Specter. Foreshadowing Michael Bloomberg's Republican mayoral run in New York City many years later—the GOP primary was simply less crowded than the Democratic one—Specter used the Republican Party to get to a general election even while maintaining his ancestral ties to the Democratic Party. "When you see a fork in the road," Yogi Berra advised, "take it." And being Arlen Specter, the plan worked: he won the election by defeating the Democratic machine candidate.

"I was the first Republican candidate to ever win the backing of Americans for Democratic Action," Specter boasts, a claim that if true should have been his future party's first warning signal of what was to come. Specter's Democratic father had died of a heart attack while visiting Israel months before. "I was apprehensive about running on the Republican ticket, which was almost like changing my religion," Specter acknowledges.

Yet Specter would soon complete the conversion politically. After an election in which he benefited from the appearance of being a fusion candidate, he decided to officially register as a Republican. "It wasn't out of any philosophical love or affinity for the GOP cause," Specter recalls, a fact he would spend the remainder of his career demonstrating. "Ideology doesn't drive city government."

In Specter's telling, however, he was a good Republican soldier. Although he wanted to run for governor in 1970, he didn't do so because GOP leaders wouldn't back him. Instead he "continued doing the party's bidding" by chairing Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign in Pennsylvania and running for a third term as district attorney (a job he no longer wanted) in 1973.

The election was only days after the Saturday Night Massacre, a major turning point in perceptions of the Watergate scandal. Specter's ties to Nixon proved too much to overcome. He lost by 28,000 votes. But he began his quest for a statewide office despite the reticence of Republican leaders. "I was still by far the best Republican candidate to run statewide," Specter remembers immodestly, "because of my popularity in southeastern Pennsylvania." But Keystone State Republicans had other ideas.

In 1980, Specter's "popularity in southeastern Pennsylvania" finally paid off. He won the GOP sena-torial primary over the opposition of party leaders and then went on to prevail in the general election. Yet he didn't put together exactly the same coalition that elected Ronald Reagan president. "Unlike nearly all the other fifteen Republicans elected to the Senate in 1980," Specter writes, "I did not fly in on Reagan's coattails as part of 'the Reagan revolution,' but in some ways in spite of it."

Winning Philadelphia while Reagan lost it but unable to carry the Gipper's voters in Pittsburgh, Specter faced a completely different statewide electoral map than the presidential winner. This marked the beginning of Specter's tenure as an unreliable Republican. "I didn't feel I owed Reagan anything," Specter writes. "And I didn't owe the Republican Party much."

Specter spent much of the next three decades voting according to this feeling. He was to his party's left on abortion, taxes, judges, affirmative action, gun control, labor issues, tort reform, and gay rights. He helped defeat Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, arguably saving Roe v. Wade, and years later would shrink and put an expiration date on the Bush tax cuts.

During off years, Specter would compile a voting record that was more liberal than conservative. But when the Republican primary approached, he would inch to the right. Specter's tough questioning of Anita Hill helped Clarence Thomas be confirmed to the Senate by a narrow margin. He voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, agreeing with Daniel Patrick Moynihan that the procedure was too close to infanticide. He opposed the 1993 Clinton tax increase.

LIFE AMONG THE CANNIBALS VACILLATES between wry humor about Washington's absurdity and self-righteousness about Specter's status as a moderate Republican. (Or as he described himself in his ill-fated 1996 run for the GOP presidential nomination, "an economic-fiscal conservative and a social libertarian.") Consider Specter's opening in chapter three, titled "Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Two Men in a Tub."

"I was in the whirlpool at the Senate gym in 2008, recovering from Hodgkin's, when Ted Kennedy came over and climbed into the bath," Specter recounts. "Kennedy was one of the Senate's giants, in many ways. It was as though a gigantic walrus had plunged into the sea, causing the level to swell." (For another amusing encounter between the two senators, go to YouTube and look at the video of Specter and Kennedy arguing like two old ladies about the difference between sending and receiving a letter during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Sam Alito.)

Then Specter goes into serious statesman mode. "Kennedy and I had bonded over opposing Bork's Supreme Court nomination, and that bond was strengthened by sponsoring Kennedy's 1997 hate-crimes legislation, alone among Republicans," he writes. "Those were difficult times, with gays held in low esteem."

That would be 1997, the year comedienne Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian on national television, a year after the country had just reelected its most pro-gay rights president in history, and a year before the sitcom Will & Grace debuted. Notwithstanding the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard, the America of that time was not some violent bastion of homophobia, with Specter and Kennedy standing alone athwart a climate of hate like the two FBI agents portrayed in Mississippi Burning.

By 2004, conservatives were getting tired of Specter's act. Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican congressman from a swing district in Pennsylvania, decided to challenge Specter in the GOP primary. It was the biggest threat to Specter's political career in twelve years. Toomey mounted a serious challenge but Specter fought back. With the intervention of George W. Bush and his more conservative Senate colleague Rick Santorum, Specter eked out a 51 percent victory in the primary.

Specter probably thought he would be senator for life at that point. He beat back a conservative attempt to deny him the Judiciary Committee chairmanship. Though he was a reliable supporter of Bush's judicial nominations during the second term, he relished opportunities to be the deciding vote in the Senate. Over the next six years, the political terrain shifted around Specter.

Many moderate to liberal Republicans began leaving the party due to Bush's unpopularity, re-registering as independents and even Democrats. This sapped Specter's support base within the party. Meanwhile, conservatives felt increasing buyer's remorse over the senator's 2004 renomination and groups like the Club for Growth-by far the biggest villain in Specter's book-gained in influence.

After Barack Obama was elected president, Specter was in the position he long coveted. With just 41 Republicans in the Senate, he could be the deciding vote in favor of any legislation Obama proposed. Yet there was always the chance he would vote with his party and sink the Democrats' bills too. Arlen Specter was finally the most powerful man in Washington.

Or so he thought. Specter decided to vote for Obama's $800 billion unfunded stimulus program, which House Republicans unanimously opposed. This proved to be the final straw. Tea Party activists confronted the senator at townhall meetings. Toomey had decided on a rematch and after the stimulus vote, it became clear that there was no way Specter could beat him. So there was only one way he could remain in the Senate: return to the Democratic Party.

Specter had stood before the cameras flanked by Bush and Santorum only a few years before. He went from promising to protect the Republicans' filibuster power to vowing to deliver a filibuster-proof majority, while reserving the right to go off the reservation whenever he wanted. Specter's unprincipled deal-making finally caught up to him. He attracted a liberal primary challenger and his new Democratic colleagues, from Obama and Joe Biden to Harry Reid, double-crossed him.

Senate Democrats stripped him of his seniority. The primary challenge cost Specter his leverage as well, as he now had to become a party-line Democrat to have any hope of winning. Promised help for his reelection campaign didn't come. Obama failed to even mention Specter by name during a Pennsylvania appearance. Specter barely tries to justify his flip-flopping on issues like card check or his use of the two parties for his own purposes, but reading this book you can tell he is steamed by these slights.

"I was a little surprised when he did not acknowledge my presence, especially when he started off thanking [Pittsburgh] Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for meeting him at the airport, looking straight at Ravenstahl and me sitting together in the audience's front row," Specter writes about the president. "He acknowledged a number of other people, but not me."

EVEN AFTER SWITCHING PARTIES, Specter openly rooted for Republican Norm Coleman to beat Democrat Al Franken in a closely fought Minnesota Senate race. He opposed Obama's budget and his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. But Joe Sestak's primary challenge made such independence impossible. And Sestak still beat Specter for the Democratic nomination, going on to lose the general to Specter's nemesis Pat Toomey.

Specter believes that his defeat was a tragedy, even though he may have cast the most unpopular collection of votes in history: for Obamacare, the stimulus, TARP, the Iraq war, the Patriot Act. No wonder both parties rejected him. Specter doesn't seem to understand what is wrong with a little pork among friends, why compromise is not always a virtue in itself, or what purpose beyond self-preservation there is to politics.

Not long after switching parties, Specter remembers getting into a television dust-up with Republican Michele Bachmann. Specter spoke condescendingly to her and there was a backlash against his treatment of women. "I don't apologize unless I've done something really wrong," he writes. "I just don't do it. But I decided to make an exception here because it was the politic thing to do."

Specter's career of making unprincipled exceptions because it was the politic thing to do finally came to a screeching halt. In a way, it is fitting that he is now a stand-up comic. The joke was on him.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.